Some Marketers Say Passing is Best Strategy for Super Bowl Sunday


The hoopla and hyperbole surrounding the costly commercials that will run on Sunday during Super Bowl XXXIV has been intensified by the dozen or more dot-coms scheduled to appear for the first time. And the noise is generating a bit of a backlash centered on “anti-advertising”: promotions, public-relations campaigns, sweepstakes and other efforts off the gridiron to reach consumers.

The interest in those tactics apart from traditional television advertising is part of a trend, particularly among the dot-coms, to more narrowly focus sales pitches on potential customers rather than aim broadly at all consumers.

The reason? Disappointment among many dot-coms and their venture capitalists with sales during the holiday shopping season, despite the estimated $1 billion spent to drive traffic to and encourage buying on World Wide Web sites.

“There’s only one day in the entire year when the average consumer is interested in advertising,” said Jonathan Bond, co-chairman at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners in New York. “But nothing makes Madison Avenue look as excessive as all the Super Bowl ads.”

So in some instances, he added, “there’s almost a better opportunity to go against the Super Bowl than to be on it.”

For one client, DLJ Direct, the online brokerage unit of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, Kirshenbaum Bond is promoting an offer: commission-free trading for customers on Super Bowl Sunday. In a television commercial running this week to publicize the promotion, DLJ Direct asks a cheeky question: “Why invest $2 million on one ad this Sunday when we could invest it in you?”

Another example of the attention being paid to “non-advertising” is a fanciful feature in the trade publication PR Week, focused on alternatives to expensive Super Sunday spots. The feature, “Super Bowl Fantasy,” appears in the issue due out today; it is a sequel to an article from 1999 for Super Bowl XXXIII.

“We wanted to challenge the Super Bowl advertising mindset,” said Adam Leyland, editor in chief at PR Week in New York, published by the PR Publications unit of the Haymarket Group. “It has become a brag, and bragging doesn’t always work.”

“Lots of companies think if they throw enough money at a problem, that will fix it,” he added. “But of the 30-odd Super Bowl advertisers, only one or two break through and get talked about. The rest get forgotten after 30 seconds.”

Mr. Leyland and other editors at PR Week asked six agencies specializing in public relations to assume that Super Bowl advertisers were seeking other ways to spend the money earmarked for commercials: an estimated average of $2 million to $3 million for each 30-second spot during the game.

The plans the agencies proposed included wacky stunts like a “Super Pet Bowl” held in a tent shaped like, yes, a pet’s food bowl; giveaways of prizes like $1 million and 50 luxury automobiles; and campaigns for dot-coms to encourage Internet literacy.

“Sometimes, it makes more sense to do something else, to say ‘We’re not playing the Super Bowl game,’ literally or figuratively,” said one participant in the imaginary exercise, John Brodeur, chairman and chief executive at Brodeur Worldwide in Boston, a unit of the Omnicom Group.

“I don’t know if our friends in advertising would enjoy these ideas,” he added, “but a lot of them are turning to webcasts and other types of marketing communications.”

Mr. Brodeur and his colleagues “decided it would be fun to get into the car business,” he said, suggesting that BMW of North America, which is buying two 30-second commercials during the game, instead give away 50 BMW 323i sedans to drivers in the 50 states.

And like Kirshenbaum Bond, Brodeur Worldwide “would advertise that we’re ‘counter-advertising,’ ” Mr. Broder said, perhaps buying spots to announce the winners on programs opposite the Super Bowl.

Another participant in the feature said he came to praise commercials, not to bury them.

“As much as I’m an advocate of public relations,” said Mitch Markson, global creative director at Edelman Public Relations Worldwide in New York, “I’m not here to slam advertising. They work best when they work together.”

“But there are things public relations can do,” he added, “to make the consumer experience more involving and less passive” than watching a TV commercial.

Mr. Markson and his colleagues offered two ideas for the McDonald’s Corporation: a Super Bowl trivia contest called “Who Wants to Be a McMillionaire,” spoofing guess which extraordinarily popular ABC game show, and a charity auction of football memorabilia.

Alas, McDonald’s, a perennial Super Bowl advertiser, is not buying a commercial this time. “I can only assume the list we had contained an error,” Mr. Leyland said.

What does an actual Super Bowl advertiser that was included in both PR Week fantasy features think of the unsolicited advice?

“We’re huge believers in public relations and tripled our P.R. budget this year,” said Anne Hollows, senior vice president for global brand strategy at in Maynard, Mass., the job search Web site owned by TMP Worldwide.

“But we’re breaking a $50 million brand campaign that will run all year long,” she added. “And let’s face it, there’s no place like the Super Bowl to make it happen.” advertised during Super Bowl XXXIII and will return for Super Bowl XXXIV with more work from Mullen Advertising in Wenham, Mass., part of the Lowe Group unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies.

In PR Week, is offered four “non-advertising” ideas by Porter Novelli Millsport Sports, a joint venture of Porter Novelli in New York, a public relations agency owned by Omnicom, and Millsport, a sports marketing agency in Stamford, Conn. The ideas include an online contest to match celebrities with their résumés and a job fair that would travel across the country in “Monster trucks.”

Maybe there could be another idea: free career counseling for the creative directors whose Super Bowl spots flop.